10 Scott OrdwayScott Ordway – Girl in the Snow
Julia Dawson; Anna Naretto
Acis APL85820 (acisproductions.com)

Composed by Scott Ordway, Girl in the Snow is a song cycle featuring Canadian mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson and Italian pianist Anna Naretto. Inspired by Saint Augustine’s Confessions, a deeply personal and philosophical narrative, Ordway creates allusive metaphors to describe both the imaginary landscapes of the mind and the places where we store memory. The girl in the snow is initially portrayed as a young girl wandering a snow-covered dreamland and remembering parts of her relationship with nature. The eight songs of the cycle total approximately 37 minutes of music and as the cycle progresses we understand the girl to be a woman reminiscing about her life, the events that have shaped her since, the love she experienced, ultimately, coming back to the present and “awakening” to the end of her life. 

Dawson and Naretto act as narrators and bring the audience on an intimate, philosophical journey. Their connected interpretations give life and meaning to poetry that needs a touch of decoding but music that is rich in sounds and colours. Naretto’s playing is nuanced and deliberate while Dawson’s tone quality and colour, distinctively mezzo-soprano, are written in a range more closely aligned with a higher soprano. This, along with the solemn and ethereal nature of the work, especially in the Memory Play sections, leaves the listener feeling unsettled, perhaps intentionally, about the sometimes intangibleness of remembrance.

Boundless
Sirens
Leaf Music (leaf-music.ca)

The ethereal polyphony of the Sirens Choir is absolutely bewitching on Boundless. You would be forgiven for falling prey to the charms of the women of this Prince Edward Island-based choir as they wax eloquent with their celestial 11-voice harmonies on this disc. So perfect is this programming that it is surprising to note that this debut didn’t happen much earlier. 

This is a quietly potent recording. Its feminism is whispered rather than broadcast, with all the singers conveying a sense of strength, joy and spontaneity. Ensemble director Kelsea McLean guides, with a firm hand, the often delicate musicality of the group. Together with the rest of Sirens, she is able to inspire a performance where balanced rhythm, soaring harmonies and subtle dynamics are both flexible and dramatic. The overall sound is highly translucent, made more memorable in the meditative atmosphere of St. Bonaventure’s Church, where the recording took place.

The music of Selene’s Boat and of Boundless is utterly captivating. Turlutte acadienne montréalaise may be the disc’s apogee. By the time you get here, however, you may wish that you had a booklet of lyrics with which to follow the vocalists; it’s a small price to pay for listening to this outstanding music. Odysseus may have resisted the mesmerism of the Sirens of the Aegean Sea, but you will not be able to resist the charms of these Canadian singers.

Listen to 'Boundless' Now in the Listening Room

12a Crossing Tower GardenThe Tower and the Garden
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Navona Records NV6303 (crossingchoir.org)

Gavin Bryars – A Native Hill
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Navona Records NV6347 (crossingchoir.org)

American professional chamber choir The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, is a multi-Grammy-winning ensemble dedicated to new music, collaboration and modern day social, spiritual, environmental and cultural issues. In these two recordings, they perform recent works with in-depth understanding of the music and issues the composers explore. 

The Crossing commissioned three composers on The Tower and the Garden. Estonian Toivo Tulev set Walt Whitman’s words in the slow new music-flavoured, haunting A child said, what is the grass? (2015). Almost shrill attention-grabbing opening vocals lead to contrasting high female and low men’s interval patterns and drones in fluctuating tonal/atonal segments to the final hopeful long note. The Tower and the Garden (2018) for choir and string quartet by Gregory Spears, is a more tonal four-movement setting of poems by Keith Garebian, Denise Levertov and Thomas Merton exploring religion, technology and conservation. Highlight is the tonal third movement Dungeness Documentary. Set to Garebian’s text which pays homage to the late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s final days, its slower, slight dissonant strings opening, and subsequent emotional tight choral vocalizations with strings, is breathtaking listening. Composer Joel Puckett’s I enter the earth (2015) sets words, spoken by shaman Kxao =Oah of northwestern Botswana in 1971, in a meditative work connecting body and soul with vocal swells, wide-pitched lead lines and static reflective held notes.  

12b Crossing A Native HillA Native Hill (first complete performance 2019) is a 12-movement work for 24-member a cappella choir with minimal keyboard parts, composed by Gavin Bryars as a gift to The Crossing. A follow-up to his Grammy Award-winning work composed for them, it is based on the 1968 essay of the same name by American author and activist/environmentalist Wendell Berry about his rural life existence. 

Bryars’ understanding of The Crossing’s talents makes this over-one-hour monumental composition amazing in content, musicality and choral sounds. Mostly tonal, each movement has a nature-based name. Highlights include Sea Level where the wave motion can be heard in longer, full harmonic notes and dynamic swells. More water music in The Music of Streams with slower occasional sudden swells and subtle atonalities. The shorter The Hill has answering between vocal groups and a suspenseful drone. Clever use of choral whistles and hums in Animals and Birds. At Peace is a dramatic change in sonic pace with the opening featuring each choir member singing their own note to create a 24-voice cluster followed by touches of romanticism, atonalities and tonal harmonies building dramatically to close the work.    

Conductor Donald Nally is brilliant leading The Crossing from musical subtleties to complexities. The Crossing’s performances illuminate their expansive musical artistry. Production is clear and detailed. Both these discs are highly recommended!

01 Michelangelos MadrigalMichelangelo’s Madrigal
Kate Macoboy; Robert Meunier
Etcetera KTC 1623 (etcetera-records.com)

Through this CD, Australian Kate Macoboy and Canadian Robert Meunier, who now reside in London, England attempt to restore Italian madrigal composers to their true position as some of the leading exponents of the medium. They even find time for some sensuous lute solos from the same group of composers.

In a CD of 19 tracks, it is difficult to single out the most emotive compositions, but Macoboy’s interpretation of Pesenti’s Aime, ch’io moro has a languorous, almost haunting, quality to it which is reminiscent of the greatest Italian madrigalists of the later stages of the Renaissance. It is difficult from this CD to imagine that these Italian composers were somehow overshadowed by their colleagues elsewhere in Europe. Poignantly, Ben mi credea passar mio tempo homai is not only pensive and moving because of its music but it benefits from the poetry of a certain Petrarch – and was still overlooked by contemporary audiences!

Then there is the lute playing. While it is once again difficult to select a personal favourite from these pieces, Da Milano’s Fantasia 42 has a soothing and intricate quality ably brought out by Meunier. But this CD is really about its soprano. For the full range and power of Macoboy’s singing skills, listen to Bartolomeo Tromboncino’s Per dolor me bagno il viso, with its plaintive demands on both singer and instrumentalist.

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02 Beethoven LeonoreBeethoven – Leonore (original 1805 version)
Nathalie Paulin; Jean-Michel Richer; Opera Lafayette; Ryan Brown
Naxos 2.110674 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110674)

Staging the very first (1805) version of Beethoven’s only opera, then still referred to as Leonore, begs some questions: Why now, in its three-act format, when the maestro himself revised it and reduced it to two-acts, when Leonore failed twice before finally getting the recognition it deserved in 1814 and that as a considerably revamped Fidelio?

You will find several answers in the meticulously detailed booklet notes by Nizam Kettaneh, co-executive producer of this performance. A more compelling historical reason comes from Beethoven himself who, while forever wrestling with a political-philosophical credo, quite fittingly continued to refer to the opera using its full, preferred, name: Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe. The original production may also have been shortened for political and commercial rather than purely artistic reasons; after all, it first played to a French audience which reportedly didn’t care much for German opera. Thus Beethoven may have reacted by making the 19th-century version of what composers today might call a “radio-friendly edit.” 

And then there’s this compelling performance itself. At the hands of Opera Lafayette, Leonore flares to life as if for the first time. Ryan Brown conducts the opera with a muscular fervour to proclaim the youthfulness of Beethoven’s masterpiece. Jean-Michel Richer’s Florestan is splendid and Nathalie Paulin’s Leonore/Fidelio is breathtaking. The prisoner’s chorus is soul-stirring. Best of all, the themes of unselfish love, loyalty, courage, sacrifice and heroic endurance all shine brilliantly throughout.

03 Schuberts WomenSchubert’s Women
Klaudia Tandl; Gabriele Jacoby; Niall Kinsella
Gramola 99223 (gramola.at)

In his songs, Schubert reveals uncanny empathy for women – not just for the Romantic ideal of the eternal feminine, but for authentic, individual women. Irish pianist Niall Kinsella has put together this program of songs to feature some of those complex women Schubert was drawn to, from Goethe’s Gretchen and Mignon to Kosegarten’s Louisa and Schiller’s Thekla.  Austrian mezzo-soprano Klaudia Tandl voices their thoughts and feelings with both tenderness and drama. Austrian actor Gabriele Jacoby’s recitations of texts are rich with colour and insight, though it can be jarring to encounter them interspersed among the songs.

In the narrative songs, Tandl uses her considerable expressive powers to convey the vivid atmosphere Schubert evokes. Goethe’s ballad Der Fischer tells of a seductive water nymph who lures a fisherman into her deadly waters. Tandl captures the jaunty but chilling atmosphere, while Kinsella delves into Schubert’s endlessly inventive images of swelling, surging water.

But Tandl is at her most moving when Schubert is directly describing the characters’ own suffering and joys in the first person. In Die junge Nonne, a young nun describes the turbulent longings which lead her to rapturous visions of the divine. Kinsella conjures up storms and church bells, while Tandl achieves sublimity with the closing repeated “Alleluia.”

Tandl and Kinsella’s perspective is so fresh and fruitful; I’m looking forward to hearing more of Schubert’s women-focused songs from them – especially the 12 songs he set to texts by women poets.

04 Tristan und IsoldeWagner – Tristan und Isolde
Juyeon Song; Roy Cornelius Smith; Ostrava Opera Men’s Chorus; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; Robert Reimer
Navona Records nv6321 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6321)

It’s a plausible idea to remove opera from the opera house to the concert stage. It makes it more accessible to the public, much less expensive and musically just as satisfying. (I recall seeing Nabucco for the first time in New York, Carnegie Hall, with Tito Gobbi and Elena Suliotis in concert form and still treasure the memory). In this instance, Tristan und Isolde was performed in concert under the aegis of the Claude Heater Foundation of San Francisco at the Penderecki Cultural Center in Poland with the forces noted above. And what a performance! Thanks to Facebook I actually saw excerpts from it on a wide stage with the full symphony orchestra and soloists all at the same level and a large screen behind with projected images following the mood of each scene.

The result is this audio recording with young singers, largely unknown, and a wonderful orchestra from the nearby Czech Republic enthusiastically and passionately conducted by Robert Reimer, an up-and-coming young German conductor, well known and already very successful in Europe.

Tristan was sung by American heldentenor Roy Cornelius Smith with amazing vocal power and total emotional involvement shaping the difficult, strenuous role. Isolde is a big surprise: largely unknown Korean dramatic soprano Juyeon Song, a petite figure but what a voice! A vocal powerhouse with secure high notes; a strong and passionate Isolde. Just listen to her angry outbursts of indignation in the first act, the impatient longing when awaiting Tristan for their secret tryst, the sheer ecstasy of their first embrace and that wonderful love duet with waves of passion that never wants to end! South African mezzo, Tamara Gallo, a thoroughly convincing Brangäne, shines in her soliloquy warning the lovers of the coming danger, and American basso John Paul Huckle as King Marke is perfect as the wronged husband. Excellent spacious sound favours the singers. An impressive new issue, highly recommended.

05 Alex EddingtonA Present from a Small Distant World: Vocal Music by Alex Eddington
Kristin Mueller-Heaslip; Daniel Ramjattan; Jennifer Tran; Joseph Ferretti; Elaine Lau; Alex Eddington
Redshift Records TK483 (alexeddington.com)

Toronto composer Alex Eddington made a splash in 2004, winning a SOCAN Award for his cheekily titled monodrama Death to the Butterfly Dictator! (libretto by Kristin Mueller-Heaslip). His ambitious vocal-focused debut album A Present from a Small Distant World is as unorthodox and in some ways just as cheeky. 

Eddington’s work embraces orchestral and choral music to electroacoustics, on the way adding period instruments and steel pan ensemble to his catalogue. And like much of Eddington’s oeuvre A Present from a Small Distant World can certainly be branded eclectic. It consists of six art songs composed between 2008 and 2020 authoritatively sung by soprano Mueller-Heaslip, plus three aphoristic acoustic guitar-centred interludes, sensitively played by Daniel Ramjattan, disrupted by spacey, Morse coded electronics by Eddington.

One of the album’s leitmotifs is interstellar communication. Its inspiration is revealed in the title track where Mueller-Heaslip sings part of Jimmy Carter’s 1977 speech that launched the Voyager spacecraft. Onboard was the Golden Record, a phonographic metal disc with a cross-section of the words, images and music of humanity. Explains Eddington, “… there is something wonderful about sending greetings hurtling outward,” even though chances they will be intercepted are slim.

The last track, INTERSTELLAR, To the Makers of Music (text: inscribed by hand on the abovementioned Golden Record) neatly brings together all the elements previously presented – (multi-tracked) vocals, guitar and electronics – atmospherically summing up Eddington’s vision of music drifting through time and space toward an unseen audience.

06 LITANIESNick Cave; Nicholas Lens – L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S
Various Artists
Deutsche Grammophon 483 9745 (deutschegrammophon.com/en)

Dark, intimate and beautiful – the music on this album flows like the fragmented pieces of night’s shadows in search of belonging to a world that is no more. Featuring four voices and an 11-piece instrumental ensemble, this chamber opera is simply breathtaking. There are no big arias here and no extravagant operatic gestures; instead, the melodies are unpretentious and the music is dreamy, almost trancelike, creating a self-enclosed world of small wonders. 

Belgian composer Nicholas Lens and Australian rock icon Nick Cave’s second opera collaboration unfolded during the lockdown in 2020. The album was recorded in Lens’ home studio where he and his daughter, Clara-Lane Lens (who accidentally found herself in Brussels during the lockdown), stepped into the singing roles, along with fabulous Denzil Delaere and Claron McFadden. The understated voices added a beautiful and real vulnerability to both the music and lyrics. Cave’s libretto cuts through the tonal layers like a well-honed knife; his poetry is both haunting and relentless in its chase of divine recognition for humankind. The sparsity of the music proved to be advantageous in this opera – every note, every phrase, every word, has a visible meaning. From the opening Litany of Divine Absence, to the gorgeous violin lines in Litany of the First Encounter and Litany of Godly Love, to the cinematic Litany of Divine Presence, the 12 movements unravel stories of the human condition.

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